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Pennsylvania Ballet

'The Waltz Project,' '11:11,' 'Nine Sinatra Songs'

Six Wainwright songs

by Lori Ibay

February 2-6, 2005 -- Merriam Theatre, Philadelphia

“Nine Sinatra Songs,” Pennsylvania Ballet’s first program after “Nutcracker,” served as excellent bait to reel in a wider audience. Showcasing Twyla Tharp’s romantic ballet set to Sinatra’s classic hits and with performances just a week before Valentine’s Day, the program appealed to all the generations that have enjoyed the legendary crooner’s music. However, it was new piece set to music by a lesser known singer that really gave the audience something to applaud about.

The performance began with Peter Martins’s “The Waltz Project,” set to ten contemporary waltzes played by pianist Martha Koeneman. The curtain rose to the sounds of a bustling city and metal skyscrapers loomed in the distance while four men (Alexander Iziliaev, David Krensing, Meredith Rainey, and Francis Veyette) stood solidly like a set of monkey bars on an urban playground. Four women (Amy Aldridge, Valerie Amiss, Tara Keating, and Arantxa Ochoa) came out one by one, climbing over the men, swinging around their arms, making acrobatics look like child’s play.

The second waltz, danced by principals Ochoa and Krensing, exhibited the company’s star power with the pair’s effortless expert partnering and perfect synchrony. Aldridge and Rainey followed, again looking like kids on a playground, moving with happy freedom and seemingly constant motion. Amiss and Iziliaev were playful and flirtatious, and Keating with corps member Veyette executed tricky lifts and catches without hesitation.

Ochoa and Krensing’s return showcased Ochoa’s flexibility and Krensing’s strength, and Aldridge and Rainey slowed the pace in their return with beautifully deliberate and sentimental motion. Amiss showed her flair, returning to the stage in a pair of sneakers, and Keating and Veyette danced with intense urgency before the final ensemble raised the energy level with crisp unison segments for a strong finish.

After a brief intermission, the dancers returned to the stage for company member Matthew Neenan's world premiere of "11:11," set to six songs by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The music was probably unfamiliar to most of the audience, but the dancers moved with airy lightness and freedom that made them seem to glide across the stage. Neenan's simple, clean movements came naturally to his performers, who danced with a wonderful energy that seemed to originate from within.

Neenan's choreography was innovative -- showing off the company's athleticism and individual strengths -- as well as visually refreshing, with strong ensemble segments and wonderful use of space and movement patterns. Coupled with Wainwright's intriguing lyrics, Neenan's creativity kept me at the edge of my seat for the entire piece. The costumes, designed by principal dancer Martha Chamberlain, flowed gently around the dancers, complimenting their movements much like Wainwright's vocals seemed to float above the music.

Neenan's piece drew enthusiastic applause from the audience, building up the excitement for the company premiere of the marquis piece, "Nine Sinatra Songs," choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Although the piece boasted a more famous singer and more well-known choreographer, it was a disappointingly anti-climactic finish to the program.

In contrast to Neenan's piece, the dancers seemed restricted in their evening gowns and tuxedos (original designs by Oscar de la Renta), and while Sinatra's voice (and a rotating mirrored disco ball) automatically provided the romantic tone, the choreography hardly produced the sentiments provided by the music.

The seven couples (Julie Diana and Francis Veyette, Heidi Cruz and Meredith Rainey, Arantxa Ochoa and Thomas Baltrushunas, Laura Bowman and Philip Colucci, Meredith Reffner and James Ihde, Tara Keating and James Ady, and Amy Aldridge and David Krensing) took their turns with eight of Sinatra's hits ("My Way" was used twice, in the middle of the piece and then as the finale to make up the "Nine Sinatra Songs").

Keating and Ady dancing to "Forget Domani" temporarily infused some energy into the audience, but the finale with all seven couples dancing to "My Way" (again) was unexpectedly dull and somewhat disorganized, with couples clustered on one side of the stage looking crowded, while the other end of the stage was left empty. Although there were some nice moments within the piece -- a romantic pose here, a beautiful lift there -- the choreography failed to bring excitement to the well-known music.

Though the program was titled after Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," it was Neenan's world premiere that kept the audience buzzing (and attempting to recall Wainwright's lyrics as they filed out of the theater). Although Neenan doesn't carry the official title of "Resident Choreographer," his pieces should continue to draw a wider audience to Pennsylvania Ballet, considering "11:11" carried this program, and alone was worth the price of admission.

Edited by Staff.

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